The Red Cross Ambulance Incident – How the Media Legitimized an Anti-Israel Hoax and Changed the Course of a War

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+ Introduction

+ What Supposedly Happened: The Media Accuses Israel of War Crimes

+ The Ambulance With a Hole in Its Roof: Dismantling the Evidence

+ Possible Rebuttals and Explanations of the Apparent Fraud

+ Conclusion: How a Hoax Became News

+ Introduction

On the night of July 23, 2006, an Israeli aircraft intentionally fired missiles at and struck two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances performing rescue operations, causing huge explosions that injured everyone inside the vehicles. Or so says the global media, including Time magazine, the BBC, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and thousands of other outlets around the world. If true, the incident would have been an egregious and indefensible violation of the Geneva Convention, and would constitute a war crime committed by the state of Israel.

But there’s one problem: It never happened.

* * *

Of all the exposés and scandals surrounding the media’s coverage of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon, The Red Cross Ambulance Incident stands out as the most serious. The other exposés were spectacular in their simplicity (photographers staging scenes, clumsy attempts at Photoshopping images), but often concerned fairly trivial details. What does it matter whether there was a big cloud of smoke over Beirut, or a really big cloud of smoke, as one notorious doctored photograph showed? The fact that the media was lying was indeed extremely important, and justified the publicity surrounding the exposés — but what they were lying about was often minor, a slight fudging of the visuals to exaggerate the damage.

The ambulance incident, however, was anything but trivial. The media accused Israel of the most heinous type of war crime: intentionally targeting neutral ambulances which were attempting to rescue innocent victims. If true — and it is almost universally accepted as true — then Israel would lose any claim to moral superiority in the conflict. The commanders who ordered the strike should be brought up on war-crimes charges. As it is, the worldwide outcry over Israel’s purported malfeasances grew so strident that the country was pressured into a ceasefire. The media’s depictions of Israel’s actions so influenced public opinion that Israel felt compelled to end the fighting right at the moment it was starting to gain the upper hand. And as a result, Hezbollah has now claimed victory.

The Red Cross Ambulance Incident was perhaps the most damning of all the evidence against Israel, and the most morally indefensible. Other incidents were open to debate: in those cases where Israel bombed buildings that turned out to have civilians inside, Israel claimed either that it didn’t know the building was occupied, or that it was trying to hit a Hezbollah stronghold elsewhere in the same building; or that the strike was a mistake, an errant missile. But targeting clearly marked ambulances, and hitting them directly — there’s no possible excuse for that. So this specific incident contributed to the outrage over the war, eventually causing Israel to stand down.

Which makes it all the more shocking to learn that the attack on the ambulances most likely never occurred, and that the “evidence” supporting the claim is in fact a hoax.

First, let’s review exactly what is supposed to have happened, by looking at the media’s coverage of the incident; next, we will examine how the evidence does not hold up under close examination.

+ What Supposedly Happened: The Media Accuses Israel of War Crimes

If you’re already familiar with this incident, and want to go directly to the photo analysis and examination of the evidence, then scroll down to the following section. But even if you think you already know the whole story, it might be worthwhile to see just exactly how the story unfolded, chronologically from the very beginning, and how it acquired new details with every retelling. Here is a step-by-step outline of the media’s case against Israel:

July 24: Red Cross press release
This is where the story apparently first broke: in a newsletter press release issued by the Red Cross itself:
The latest of these incidents occurred on 23 July, at 11.15 pm in Cana, a village in southern Lebanon. According to Lebanese Red Cross reports, two of its ambulances were struck by munitions, although both vehicles were clearly marked by the red cross emblem and flashing lights that were visible at a great distance. The incident happened while first-aid workers were transferring wounded patients from one ambulance to another. As a result, nine people including six Red Cross volunteers were wounded.
Notice how this initial description is fairly neutral: no mention of who fired the munitions, or what type they were, or the extent of the damage.

July 24: Associated Press
The story went global when Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press included a description of the incident in a human interest story filed just a few hours later. The story ran in dozens of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. The AP version of the incident is much more elaborate than the initial report. Here is the relevant section:
…the Lebanese Red Cross suspended operations outside Tyre after Israeli jets blasted two ambulances with rockets, said Ali Deebe, a Red Cross spokesman in Tyre. In the incident Sunday, one Red Cross ambulance went south of Tyre to meet an ambulance and transfer the wounded to the hospital. “When we have wounded outside the city, we always used two ambulances,” Deebe said. The rocket attack on the two vehicles wounded six ambulance workers and three civilians – an 11-year-old boy, an elderly woman and a man, Deebe said. “One of the rockets hit right in the middle of the big red cross that was painted on top of the ambulance,” he said. “This is a clear violation of humanitarian law, of international law. We are neutral and we should not be targeted.” Kassem Shalan, one of the ambulance workers, told AP Television News that nine people were injured. “We were transferring the wounded into our vehicle and something fell and I dropped to the floor,” he said. Amateur video provided by an ambulance worker confirmed Deebe’s account of damage to the vehicles, showing one large hole and several smaller ones in the roof of one ambulance and a large hole in the roof of the second. Both were destroyed.
July 24: ITV News
That evening, Britain’s ITV News ran a breathless report about the attack, accusing Israel of serious war crimes. Significantly, however, the ITV report states that journalists did not see the ambulances themselves, and instead shows a film taken by a “local amateur cameraman.” Watch the four-minute video here:

It’s important to watch this entire video if you can, because it not only contains the fullest account of the incident — with scenes of injured ambulance drivers, and videos of the ambulances — but it conveys the typical inflammatory tone of the media coverage of this conflict. For those who can’t view the video, here is a partial transcript of the noteworthy sections of the report:
ITV reporter Julian Manyon:…Lebanese ambulance men, shocked and bleeding, brought in as casualties to a hospital in Tyre. They were hurt when Israeli aircraft rocketed two ambulance crews…. On the face of it, it is difficult to understand just how the Israeli military could possibly have mistaken two clearly marked ambulances for a legitimate military target….
ITV host: Well we’ve seen it there, haven’t we, Captain Delall? This can’t go on, this indiscriminate slaughter of Lebanese civilians.
Captain Delall: “We have nothing against the Lebanese civilians. We never intentionally target civilians, and certainly not ambulances or aid workers.
ITV host: Excuse me, but with the greatest respect, we’re talking about the Israeli army. Do you accept that hitting a Red Cross ambulance and a convoy of civilians fleeing are acts that are flagrant breaches of the rules of war?
Captain Delall: We never intentionally target civilians or ambulances….
Julian Manyon:…I would say that those ambulances were strafed from the air by helicopter fire….
ITV host:…The U.N. tells ITV News that Israel is breaking the rules of war.
Julian Manyon: The air attack on two Red Cross ambulances has increased the controversy surrounding the Israeli assault on Lebanon…. It’s noticeable that one burst of fire struck the exact center of the cross on the roof of one of the ambulances…. Because of the extreme dangers of the roads, journalists have not visited the scene. These pictures were taken by a local amateur cameraman.
ITV host: Israel’s enemies are saying attacks like that one are tantamount to war crimes.
July 25: Time magazine
The following day, Time was the first American publication to print a full account, with even more details not yet reported anywhere else:
“But on Sunday night, the emblem of the Red Cross was not enough to deter an Israeli helicopter gunship from firing missiles into a pair of ambulances loading casualties in the village of Qana”… “As Shaalan closed the back of the ambulance, however, a missile punched through the roof of the vehicle and exploded inside. “There was a boom, a big fire and I was thrown backwards. I thought I was dead,” Shaalan recalls….”Then a second missile struck the other ambulance.”…”The father’s leg was severed by the exploding missile.”… “There was no immediate comment from the Israeli authorities on why a helicopter gunship had attacked a clearly marked Red Cross ambulance.”
July 25: The Guardian
Britain’s Guardian weighed in on the same day, with a worshipful article about the ambulance crew, as the damage continued to mount:
The ambulance headlamps were on, the blue light overhead was flashing, and another light illuminated the Red Cross flag when the first Israeli missile hit, shearing off the right leg of the man on the stretcher inside. As he lay screaming beneath fire and smoke, patients and ambulance workers scrambled for safety, crawling over glass in the dark. Then another missile hit the second ambulance. Even in a war which has turned the roads of south Lebanon into killing zones, Israel’s rocket strike on two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances on Sunday night set a deadly new milestone…. Two ambulances were entirely destroyed, their roofs pierced by missiles…. One of the members of the three-man crew from Tibnin radioed for help when another missile plunged through the roof….He was adamant that the ambulances, with their Red Cross insignia on the roof, were clearly visible from the air. “I don’t think there can be a mistake in two bombings of two ambulances,” he said.
The detailed specificity of the descriptions — who was injured, their ages, their exact injuries, a second-by-second account of what happened, and so on — make the report seem extremely credible. After reading the Guardian’s account and watching the ITV News video, who could question the veracity of the incident?

July 25: The Austin American-Statesman
On July 25, there was a brief flurry of three articles providing the same vague or paraphrased quote purportedly from the IDF acknowledging the strikes. All three are cited here. But strangely, none of the hundreds of subsequent articles mention the IDF acknowledgement. As one reader pointed out, “The Israelis routinely offer apologies for incidents that they haven’t even made cursory investigations into. So even if this were to turn out to be a factual quoting about that incident I wouldn’t give it anything other than a cursory consideration.” Anyway, the embroidery on the tale of woe becomes ever more elaborate with each retelling. Now, the driver reports that he had a psychic premonition of the attack:
Kasem Chaalan had an inkling that something bad would happen. Chaalan, 28, was hurrying out of the headquarters of the Tyre chapter of the Lebanese Red Cross late Sunday evening to pick up some wounded people. As he rushed toward the door, he asked his colleagues lounging in the office to forgive him for any wrongs he might have done them. It was the first time in 13 years of volunteering for the Red Cross that he had ever uttered such words. “I don’t know why I said it,” he recalled Monday, hours after Israeli rockets hit his ambulance and another, wounding him and eight others…. Late Sunday, Chaalan and two other volunteers drove their ambulance 10 miles southeast to the town of Qana, where they met another Red Cross ambulance from the village of Tebnine on its way to hospitals up north. Chaalan and his crew loaded the three wounded people into their ambulance. As he closed the vehicle’s rear door, an Israeli rocket hurtled through the roof of the ambulance…. Within seconds, an Israeli missile tore through the roof of the second ambulance…. “The incident in which vehicles were hit last night occurred in an area known to be one of the main sources of the launching of hundreds of missiles,” an Israeli army spokesman said Monday.
July 25: The Boston Globe
The same day, the Boston Globe had an equally detailed article on the incident, among the first to also show a photo of the damage to an ambulance’s roof (we’ll look at this photo, among many others, in the “Evidence” section below). Here are a few relevant quotes from the Globe version:
But inside their ambulances, the paramedics of the Lebanese Red Cross, Station 702, felt safe. So Kasim Shaalan, who thought nothing more could shock him in this 13-day war, was shocked Sunday night when he closed the rear door of his ambulance and it exploded, seriously wounding two patients inside…. The Israel Defense Forces said last night that Israeli fire hit an ambulance during fighting in the Qana area, east of Tyre. “The IDF never intentionally targets civilians, much less ambulances,” a spokesman said. “It should be noted that the area in which the incident took place is one from which there is intensive missile fire” directed toward Israel…. Shaalan said he was swinging the back door shut when everything around him was engulfed in a flash of light. “A big fire came toward me, like in a dream. I thought I was dying, at first,” Shaalan said…. A rocket or missile had made a direct hit through the roof, Shaalan said, severing one patient’s right leg.
July 25: Spero News
Spero News cites the same quote as the Austin American-Statesman, then amps up the accusations considerably: now two missiles hit each ambulance, the son has lost a leg, and there had been at least ten Israeli strikes on ambulances:
Six ambulance workers and their patients were wounded when Israeli missiles struck Red Cross ambulances on a rescue mission in south Lebanon. The attack took place near Qana when an ambulance from Tyre arrived intending to evacuate three patients from the border town of Tibnin. Two ambulances were completely destroyed as their roofs were pierced by missiles. According to one of the drivers, two guided missiles were fired at each ambulance…. The patients, the Fawaz family, all had minor injuries before the missiles struck the ambulance. Now the son is losing his leg and the other is treated for shrapnel wounds…. An Australian correspondent reports from the city of Tyre that at least 10 Lebanese ambulances bearing the International Red Cross emblem have been targeted in Israeli air strikes in the south of Lebanon that have killed more than a dozen civilian passengers on transport to hospitals. An Israeli army spokesman said, “The incident in which vehicles were hit last night occurred in an area known to be one of the main sources of the launching of hundreds of missiles.”
July 26: The Age
The Australian newspaper The Age idolizes the ambulance drivers, who now state explicitly what before they had only been hinting at: that Israel is doing it on purpose:
Qasim Chaalan thought he had died in the burning haze of the missile strike…. Then the roar and smash of the missiles shattered the night. Both ambulances were hit, directly and systematically, by Israeli bombs, the medics said.
July 26: MSNBC
Kerry Sanders of NBC was next in the line of reporters waiting to interview the driver Kassem Chaalan (his name is transliterated different ways), who now spices things up even further by saying he flew through the air 25 feet after the missile went right through the center of the cross on the roof:
At the Red Cross headquarters in Tyre, I spoke to Kassem Chaalan, 28, who told me about being in an ambulance that was struck by a missile. When the armament struck the vehicle, he says, it hit the Red Cross symbol on the roof dead-on. The volunteer thought at first that had died — he said the blast blew him back 15 to 25 feet.
July 30: The New York Times
The story finally reached the The New York Times on July 30, again repeating the by-now-accepted fact that a missile went through the center of the cross:
Missiles hit two Red Cross ambulances last weekend, wounding six people and punching a circle in the center of the cross on one’s roof…. “We heard on the news they were bombing the Red Cross,” said Zaineb Shalhoub, a 22-year-old who survived the bombing.
As the final quote above indicates, the media coverage in the Middle East about the ambulance incident was much more widespread and partisan than the Western coverage described here: it was a major story immediately, and the Middle Eastern media declared in no uncertain terms from the very start that the attack was not just intentional, but part of a systematic campaign to strike Red Cross ambulances.

By the beginning of August, the story had spread to the rest of the world’s media outlets, and became accepted as an unquestioned fact about the war: Israel is targeting ambulances.

+ The Ambulance With a Hole in Its Roof: Dismantling the Visual Evidence

If you even skimmed the media quotes above, by now you’re probably pretty convinced that Israel did indeed attack the Red Cross ambulances, most likely on purpose. What other conclusion could the average reader possibly reach? Dozens of reporters from prestigious publications interviewed survivors. The wounded were shown in the hospital. There was video of the injured drivers arriving back at the Red Cross office. Pictures of the damaged ambulances proved beyond doubt that there must have been an attack. And if the missile struck dead center, there’s no way it could have been accidental.


Fortunately, you don’t need to trust the words of the reporters, or the claims of the Red Cross workers. Because you can inspect the evidence yourself, and draw your own conclusions: photographs of the damaged ambulances are widely available on the Internet. Although at first the Red Cross workers kept reporters away from the vehicles, a “local cameraman” did take pictures of the damage starting just hours after the attack; and after a few days, at least one of the ambulances was towed and parked in front of the Red Cross offices in Tyre, where anyone could photograph it. As a result, there are plenty of images to choose from.

Will the story withstand an examination of the evidence? The answer, as you will soon see, is a devastating No.

(A big thanks to Infinitives Unsplit blog for being the first to raise questions about this event; to Reihl World View for being the first to examine some of the pictures in detail; and to zombietime reader Tom P. for some of the links used in this report.)

If the media and Red Cross accounts are to be believed, here is a summary of what happened, pieced together from the articles cited above:
On the night of July 23, an ambulance left Red Cross station #702 in Tyre to rendezvous with another ambulance ferrying patients from further south. While transferring patients from one ambulance to another on a road in Qana, a missile fired from either an Israeli jet or helicopter pierced the exact center of the cross on the roof of the ambulance from Tyre, severing the leg of one of the patients inside, and causing a huge fire and explosion that knocked the driver as much as 25 feet away. Immediately afterward, a second Israeli missile pierced the roof of the second ambulance as well. All the patients sustained major injuries, and all the Red Cross workers received lesser injuries. After hiding out for a while in a nearby building, they were later picked up and brought back to Tyre by a third ambulance.
Let’s look at each claim one by one, and see if any aspect of the story stands up to careful analysis of the evidence.

Claim #1: An Israeli missile pierced the exact center of the red cross on the roof of the ambulance.

This photo published in the Boston Globe is among the best-known of the images depicting damage to the ambulance. The roof is dented and scarred, obviously, and yes, there is a circular hole right in the middle of the roof, caused (we are told) by the missile. Notice, for later identification purposes, the three irregular white blotches next to the hole, and various distinctive gashes and marks — as well as the number “782” in the background. Since this is the only picture that most people saw of the ambulance, they might be willing to accept that the hole was caused by a missile. (A lightened version of the same photo ran in the Sydney Morning Herald.)

But this view of the same hole, found on this site, tells a completely different story. First of all, notice that the irregular white blotches and other gashes match those in the first picture, doubly confirming that this is the same ambulance, but with better lighting and at a better angle, photographed from the right side. Now look carefully at the edges of the hole. There is an unpainted flange of consistent width around the perimeter, with small screw holes at regular intervals. Also, the metal around the edges is not bent inward, as one would expect from a missile puncturing through the roof. In fact, the hole looks unmistakably like a pre-existing circular hole in the roof, to which some feature — such as a light or a vent cover — was attached, and then removed. (We’ll see this same photo again later when discussing other elements of the story.)

Lo and behold, when we look at other pictures of undamaged Lebanese Red Cross ambulances, we see that many of them just happen to have a ventilation cover of the exact same diameter as the “missile” hole right in the center of the cross on the roof. The picture on the left is taken from the Lebanese Red Cross site itself; the picture in the middle is from Getty Images; and the last picture is a screenshot from the ITV News video linked to above. As is also confirmed by some of the images below, it’s obvious to the naked eye that the hole in the center of the cross on the roof of the “damaged” ambulance was simply a standardized pre-existing hole to which a ventilation cover had originally attached, and then roughly stripped off.

The Virginian blog summed it up nicely: “NBC shows a picture of an ambulance with a hole in its roof as ‘proof’ that Israel is attacking ambulances. The problem is that the hole, which is right in the middle of the Red Cross on the roof, could not possibly be the result of a hit by any weapon. A shell or missile that size hitting the ambulance would not leave the rest of the vehicle intact. All that you would see would be twisted wreckage and a debris field. A more reasonable explanation for the hole is the removal of the emergency light or siren which also explains why the hole is centered precisely on the cross.” Since the other ambulances have visible sirens and lights toward the fronts of the vehicles, the function of the red dome in the center of the roof is almost certainly for ventilation.

Conclusion: The hole in the roof was not caused by a missile strike.

Claim #1: FALSE.

Claim #2: The attack happened on July 23.

Here are two more pictures of the same ambulance roof. The one on the left is a close-up (provided by Reihl World View) of this Reuters picture in the Malaysian newspaper The Star (with a typo in the caption); and the one on the right comes from the BBC.

When looking at these two pictures, keep one word in mind: rust. Both images appear to show that the roof is rusted wherever the paint is scratched away. At least, as far as can be determined at the level of resolution in both pictures.

Notice carefully again how this is indeed the same ambulance in all the photos: there are three white splotches adjacent to the hole in each image, as well as all the other distinctive marks.

Both of these pictures were taken within a week of July 23. The left picture was probably taken on July 30 or 31, since it is in an August 1 edition of the paper.

Fortunately, an extremely high-resolution version of the photo that appeared on the BBC can be found on the Red Cross’s own official site here (scroll down to the picture captioned “One of two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances hit in southern Lebanon”). If you want to inspect the photo in close detail, you can download a 4.1mb zip file containing the high-resolution version by clicking here.

This is a close-up of the central part of the roof. Suddenly, the rust appears vividly, unmistakable and widespread, when the roof is shown in clear focus.

Here are some more extreme close-ups of the roof. Notice especially how the rust appears to be quite old in some areas. Rust that extensive does not appear in a matter of hours or days. It usually takes months to develop, especially in dry climates such as Lebanon in the summer. Notice the blue sky in the second picture — it had not been raining. The presence of rust on every part of the roof where the paint has been scratched away proves that the damage to the metal happened long before July 23 — most likely several months earlier, or more. And if that’s the case, then the damage we’re seeing did not happen on July 23, and was thus not the result of an Israeli missile strike.

Conclusion: the rust on the dented areas of the roof proves the damage must have happened long before July 23.

Claim #2: FALSE.

Claim #3: There was a huge explosion inside the ambulance.

Here are two photos showing either side of the ambulance. The picture on the left comes from Indymedia and the final one was taken by a Lebanese photographer and posted here.

Looking at the picture on the left, it might appear at first glance that the ambulance could indeed have been blown up. But look again carefully. When there is an explosion inside a vehicle, things get blown outward. Yet the windshield is caved inward. In fact, assessing both pictures, nothing looks blown outward at all — the metal frame is pretty much intact and unscathed, and not buckled in any way.

Furthermore, aside from some of the ceiling material hanging down, nothing on the inside of the ambulance looks damaged either. All the seats, gurneys and even the floor appear to be untouched, not bent or twisted as they ought to have been if a missile had exploded literally just inches away.

(Note: As the original media reports said, there were supposed to have been two damaged ambulances, yet most of the published pictures say that they depict “the” damaged ambulance. But as the picture on the right reveals, there may actually indeed have been two damaged ambulances parked in front of the Red Cross offices in Tyre. Also, the ITV News video above taken by a “local cameraman” also shows two damaged vehicles. So it is possible that one of these two pictures shows the other ambulance. However, since the drivers claim that both vehicles were struck by missiles, the analysis remains valid, since they both should have suffered the same damage. More likely, as can be gleaned from the few scenes of both vehicles, is that the second ambulance was even less damaged than the one shown here, and consequently was ignored by photographers wanting to confirm the missile attack.)

In fact, the only part of the vehicle that seems to have suffered any kind of significant trauma was the roof. But as is revealed in this version of the well-known first picture (from the Australian newspaper The Age), all the dents and shrapnel holes are bent inward; if there was shrapnel coming from a blast inside the vehicle, they should be bent outward.

Yet we’re tiptoeing around the real problem. The ambulance above isn’t even close to having been blown up. In reality, when a missile strikes a vehicle, it looks something like any of these four examples (images taken from here, here, here, and here), all of which actually were hit by Israeli missiles (when Israel was targeting Hamas leaders in Gaza). The first and fourth pictures come courtesy of the Infinitives Unsplit blog, which was the first to analyze what really happens to vehicles in airstrikes, as opposed to what is purported to be the damage to this ambulance. Reihl World View then had a detailed examination, pointing out that if a missile really had gone through the roof, the ambulance would have been utterly destroyed and totally mangled.

Conclusion: The damage to the ambulance is completely unlike the damage that would have been caused by a missile strike.

Claim #3: FALSE.

Claim #4: There was an intense fire inside the ambulance.

Since the ambulance driver described both an explosion and a fire (remember these quotes from the articles cited above: “There was a boom, a big fire and I was thrown backwards”; “A big fire came toward me, like in a dream”; “As he lay screaming beneath fire and smoke”), let’s address them as separate issues, even though concussive damage (from an explosion) and heat damage (from a fire) often happen simultaneously. These three photos are all versions of ones shown earlier. The first one (courtesy of Reihl World View) is an enlarged look at the inside of the ambulance. Notice how the gurney, and the light blue cloth on it, are completely fresh and untouched. The plastic seat covers are not melted. There doesn’t seem to be any smoke discoloration of any kind. The pieces of fabric hanging from the ceiling show no indication of being burned in any way (the one darkish piece appears to simply be material that was brown to begin with, not burned; the other pieces are all light-colored). The second photo shows the floor from above. Again, no burn marks. The cables have not melted. The third picture, a small version of the Indymedia picture shown full-size above, is included here to demonstrate that the entire vehicle displays absolutely no hint of burning, scorching, smoke damage, or anything else that would indicate a fire had erupted inside or outside the vehicle.

Conclusion: There is no evidence that the ambulance has been damaged by fire.

Claim #4: FALSE.

Claim #5: A man lying on a gurney inside the ambulance had his leg sheared off by the missile.

For this claim, we can again rely on the same three photos shown immediately above. First of all, we already demonstrated that no missile ever penetrated the roof of the ambulance to begin with, so this claim is already facing serious credibility issues. But aside from that, is there anything to indicate that a missile cut off the leg of a man who was lying in the ambulance? Look once more at the gurneys in the picture on the left above. The front gurney’s cloth is unstained, and its frame is intact. The back gurney also appears to be undamaged. As Reihl World View says, “From the accounts, there was a man lying on one of the built in gurneys pictured — his leg severed by the missile. So how is it that neither gurney shows any damage at all? What was this, laser surgery?” And as the pictures show, the floor seems to be undamaged as well. If a missile sheared off his leg, where did the missile go after that? And lastly: losing a leg is an extremely bloody affair. Where is the blood? If the injury happened as described, the inside of the vehicle should have been drenched in blood. But there is not one drop visible.

Yet the ITV News video above purports to show evidence of the leg amputation. A picture flashes by very quickly as the narrator says “Two of the injured civilians in the ambulances received terrible additional wounds.” When the video is viewed online, the image goes by too fast to be seen clearly, but I managed to get a freezeframe screenshot of the scene, shown here. What ITV implied was an amputated leg on one of the ambulance’s gurneys appears, under closer inspection, to be a human hand on a stretcher that may or may not have anything to do with the ambulance in question. None of the accounts said anything about a hand being cut off. So what does this picture have to do with the ambulance incident? Nothing, most likely.

Also casting doubt on the credibility of the story is this report from Kevin Sites in which one of the ambulance drivers says that the man lost both legs in the attack. Why not keep exaggerating the story since the journalists never seem to bother verifying the claims?

Even so, various videos and pictures show a man in a hospital who really does seem to have part of a leg missing. (This BBC video for example shows the three civilians supposedly injured in the attack, but the video only works sporadically for viewers not in the UK.) The journalists repeat uncritically the ambulance driver’s assertion that the man had his leg cut off by an Israeli missile as he lay in the ambulance. But what proof is there that this man’s unfortunate injury had anything to do with the ambulance incident? Might he simply have been a hospital patient whose injury was completely unconnected to the ambulance in question, but who was paraded before the cameras as a victim of an Israeli missile?

Conclusion: Though there exists a man who indeed lost part of his leg, all evidence indicates that his injury did not take place in the ambulance and was not caused by a missile strike.

Claim #5: FALSE.

Claim #6: You’re analyzing the wrong ambulance, you idiot.

What with all the debunking of the photos above, readers still determined to believe the original ambulance-attack story might think, “What’s going on here? Yes, your analyses may be valid, but how do you know this is even the right ambulance? These pictures obviously show that an ambulance was not hit by a missile strike — so you must be wasting your time analyzing the wrong ambulance.”

That would be a convenient way to brush aside all the evidence shown above, but unfortunately this is indeed the correct ambulance. Many articles that specifically describe this incident use photos of ambulance #782 that are explicitly captioned as being the ambulance in question. For example, this Boston Globe article about the “attack” shows ambulance #782, with the three white blotches, and captions it
An Israeli airstrike destroyed the roof of this Lebanese Red Cross ambulance as even paramedics came under fire in the Israel-Lebanon conflict. (AP Photo)
Similar captions describing the exact same ambulance appear in dozens of other articles. And the distinctive code numbers, white blotches and other markings leave no doubts whatsoever that the ambulance depicted in all the pictures here is indeed one of the ambulances that the Red Cross drivers claim was hit by an Israeli missile attack. Furthermore, the “amateur video” (in the ITV News report) which was supplied by the Red Cross itself definitely shows the same ambulance. And this gallery of ambulance pictures by an independent Lebanese photographer confirm beyond all doubt that the ambulance depicted, now parked in front of the Tyre Red Cross office, is the same one involved in the incident, since the driver himself is standing front of it pointing to the damage — and it matches all the other pictures from the other media outlets.

And lastly: if this is the wrong ambulance, then why is it being displayed to the public as evidence of an attack? Where is the right ambulance? Why hide away the authentic evidence, and present obviously fake evidence? If there was an as-yet-unknown truly damaged ambulance, then the Red Cross workers would have shown it (or its remains) to the journalists. But they haven’t done so, meaning that the ambulance shown is all they have to offer.

Conclusion: The ambulance shown in all the pictures above is most definitely the ambulance that the Red Cross claims was attacked.

Claim #6: FALSE.

Claim #7: The ambulance driver who reported the incident was injured in the attack.

The bandaged man in these pictures is Qasim Chaalan/Kasim Shaalan/Kassem Shaulan (his name is transliterated several different ways), the driver of the Tyre ambulance and the original source for most of the story. The image on the left is a screenshot from the ITV News video cited above; the middle picture is taken from the Los Angeles Times; and the last picture is taken from the Boston Globe. He was filmed staggering into the hospital, and then later lying in a bed with large bandages on his chin and right ear. All the media reports state that he was injured during the missile attack. These photos were all apparently taken on July 24 or 25.

Here he is again (visible here and here) six or seven days later, posing for a sympathetic Lebanese photographer after all the Western journalists had left. Notice how his chin is not only miraculously healed after a very short span of time, but (as the close-up detail in the center reveals) shows no kind of scab, scar or discoloration of any kind. The last photo also shows his chin to be in perfect condition. Since these photos are used to accompany two articles posted on the same Web site on August 1, in which the author describes seeing the driver and the damaged ambulance the day before, the pictures must have been taken on July 31. Note also that the second linked article states that he has “stitches” on his chin, indicating a deep wound.

Does Qasim Chaalan have the world’s fastest healing skin? Or did he put on bandages as a prop to fool the foreign journalists?

Lending credence to the “prop bandages” theory is this freezeframe from the ITV News video with Chaalan on the left side of the picture, showing his right ear when he first arrived at the hospital just hours after it was “wounded,”, before he appeared in the hospital bed the following day with a bandage on it. Yet, as the picture shows, his ear was not even wounded in the first place. Since both his chin and his ear seem to have suffered no injuries in the incident, the bandages served no medical purpose, other than to say, “Look, I’m injured!.”

Conclusion: Either the ambulance driver had such a minor injury that it completely healed in a matter of days, or he was never injured at all.

Claim #7: UNLIKELY.

Claim #8: The Lebanese ambulance drivers are politically neutral and would have no motivation to lie.

In this story from Inter Press Service News Agency, one of Chaalan’s fellow Red Cross workers had this to say:
“As a Red Cross volunteer I need to be very clear that we are not political — we rescue anyone who needs help,” the 32-year-old Zatar told IPS. As a colleague unloaded bodies from bloody stretchers, Zatar said “whether they are civilian, a resistance fighter or an Israeli soldier, our policy is to help any human who needs help. But the Israelis seem to be attacking us now.”
In the very sentence where he’s trying to proclaim his neutrality, he reveals his political stance: Hezbollah militants are referred to as “resistance fighters.”

But perhaps that’s just one man’s opinion. It does not prove that all ambulance drivers, or all Lebanese Muslims, harbor a special hatred for Israel because of its supposed targeting of ambulances — does it?

This photo — taken months before the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict even began — had the following caption:
Beirut, LEBANON: A Lebanese man shows 18 April 2006 his son a model of the Mansouri ambulance, which was bombed on April 18, 1996 during the Israeli operation “Grapes of Wrath,” displayed in downtown Beirut to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the “Qana massacre.” The ambulance belonged to the Mansouri village, in the southeast of the southern port city of Tyre, and was carrying members of a family escaping the fight between Israel and Hezbollah when struck by Israeli planes. AFP PHOTO/RAMZI HAIDAR (Photo credit should read RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Imprinted on the national psyche of Lebanon is the first “Qana massacre,” which happened almost exactly a decade earlier. The supposed 1996 Israeli attack on an ambulance is considered such a significant event that a mock-up of the scene was displayed in the center of Beirut to mark the 10th anniversary.

Could it be that — just maybe — the ambulance drivers of Tyre decided to re-create a duplicate Israeli ambulance attack to mark the anniversary of the first one, in the exact same spot (Qana) where it had happened ten years earlier?

Conclusion: Ambulance attacks are (and have been for quite some time) highly significant to the Lebanese as symbols of national martyrdom. The ambulance drivers, who were apparently sympathetic to Hezbollah, conceivably could have staged the entire incident.

Claim #8: UNKNOWN.

Additional Evidence Links

Photo in the Boston Globe showing ambulance 782 in a parking lot prior to being moved to the Red Cross offices. Notice how the ground next to it is littered with shattered glass and bits of metal, including what looks like an overturned ventilation dome. Was the ambulance intentionally smashed up in this parking lot?

Another view of the roof from a different angle.
Photo in The Star showing a Red Cross worker in an obviously staged scene peeking out of the hole.
Reihl World View’s report on the ambulance.
Infinitives Unsplit’s report on the ambulance.

+ Possible Rebuttals and Explanations of the Apparent Fraud

Non-explosive missiles

A few commenters on blogs have asserted that Israel sometimes removes all explosives from small missiles, relying on the kinetic energy of the projectile’s impact to do the damage to whatever vehicle is being targeted. The reason for this is to minimize “collateral damage” and not injure bystanders by making a precision strike no larger than it needs to be. If this is true, then it is theoretically possible that Israel did use a non-explosive missile to attack this ambulance, and fired it so precisely that it passed through the ventilation cover in the center of the roof and then continued right through the leg of a patient, the floor of the ambulance, and into the ground underneath without exploding. This would account for a few of the incongruities of this case. But not for most of them. The non-exploding missile theory still does not explain the rust on the roof, the reports of explosions and fires, the undamaged flanges of the siren hole, the shrapnel holes coming from the outside, the apparently undamaged floor, etc., and most importantly: If Israel really did target a random ambulance with no military value, apparently for the sole purpose of killing rescue workers and civilians, then why would it go to the trouble of using a humane hyper-precise attack designed to minimize injuries? It makes no sense.

The Israeli admission

The simplest rebuttal is: Israel already admitted to carrying out the attack, so there’s nothing left to argue about.

That’s an interesting point. But it fails to take into account several critical facts. Firstly, it is typical Israeli government policy to: Apologize now, then investigate later. If the investigation reveals that Israel was not at fault, then the apology is retracted. This has long been the standard procedure. A recent example comes to mind: In the “Gaza Beach Bombing” incident earlier in 2006, when Palestinians accused Israel of shelling a family having a picnic on a Gaza beach, Israel immediately issued an apology for the tragedy. But when an internal investigation revealed that the explosion happened long after Israel had stopped shelling a nearby area, and likely had some cause unrelated to Israel’s action, then the apology was withdrawn. So if Israel really did apologize for the ambulance incident, that doesn’t constitute an admission of guilt, nor does the apology necessarily stand permanently.

But that brings up the second point: I haven’t been able to find any official record of that quote cited in the two articles above. If Israel really did admit to the attacks, then why, out of at least 400 articles about this incident, only two quoted the admission, and one more paraphrased it? Wouldn’t the admission have been more widely reported? It’s possible that the quote was an IDF member being interviewed somewhere who said, well, if the attack did happen, then we apologize. Conceivably, given the generalized nature of the purported statement, he said it without knowing the facts of this specific incident, and perhaps was not even talking about this particular incident at all. Alternately Israel did issue the preliminary statement, but then later retracted it — yet the retraction was never reported in the media. We simply don’t have enough information about Israel’s purported statement to be sure one way or the other.

And thirdly, even an apology from Israel does not magically negate all the evidence presented on this page. Apology or not, there is still no evidence that the attack ever happened.

Exaggerated Bullets

Of all the possible rationalizations of the evidence, this perhaps is the most plausible:

The ambulances were not hit by missiles, but were instead strafed by bullets fired from a helicopter. The Red Cross workers then, little by little, exaggerated and embroidered upon the tale with each new interview, until the story could no longer be supported by the evidence.

The bullets could have even hit the ventilation dome, which then was later torn off; and a bullet could have passed through the roof and hit the patient’s leg, necessitating its amputation. There was no fire, no explosion, no missile — those were all later exaggerations. But, according to this rebuttal, there could have been a strafing attack.

But even this most plausible of theories has serious flaws. The multiple holes in the roof are much more consistent with gunfire than with a missile strike. But the holes are highly irregular, widely varying in size and orientation — which would not be the case if they were caused by a blast from a machine gun. Then there is the rust, which couldn’t have formed within hours of the attack, whatever projectile may have been used.

Furthermore, none of the Red Cross workers reported hearing a helicopter or any other aircraft. It was just silence, they claim, then Boom! If a helicopter had been hovering overhead preparing to fire, they definitely would have heard it, and then reported it to support their story. And finally there is the disagreement over which type of aircraft fired on the ambulances — some articles say a jet, others say a helicopter. There is no consistent version of the story.

Another critical point: a single blast from a helicopter gunship could not possibly leave the widely varying hole sizes seen on the roof, and Israeli aircraft could not leave holes with that angle of impact, as pointed out in this comment on Little Green Footballs. A much more likely explanation, as some commenters pointed out, is that the holes were either caused by shrapnel from some object blowing up near the vehicle, or by a variety of small arms fire from people shooting at close range, either of which could leave the variety of holes seen in the picture. And a car demolition expert writes in to say that the damage to the roof (irregular dents and gashes) matches exactly the type of damage seen when a car has another car stacked on top of it — standard practice at automobile salvage yards (which would also explain why the sides of the vehicle are mostly intact).

So even if the “Exaggerated Bullets” theory is true, the majority of the story as definitively reported in the press (missiles, fire, etc.) would still be false.

+ Conclusion: How a Hoax Became News

So, what really happened? The Lebanese and the global media insist that the ambulances were deliberately targeted by Israel, for the specific purpose of killing civilians and rescue workers — a serious war crime.

Israel, for its part, has stated repeatedly that it never intentionally attacks rescue vehicles, but otherwise has stayed mostly silent about the incident, apparently awaiting further information.

But what would the average reasonable person conclude after reading and viewing all the evidence on this page? What do you think is the truth behind this incident?

This story, as presented in the media, seems to have more holes than the ambulance roof. Not a single aspect of it holds up under examination. But then what did occur?

Consider the following scenario:

Two ambulances that had been somehow damaged long before the July Israel-Hezbollah conflict even began were dragged out of a salvage yard, where they had been rusting for months or years. They were taken to a parking lot and smashed up even more, inside and out. Then fresh gurneys were placed inside one of them. An intentionally amateurish video was then taken of the two vehicles, in order to show the damage. That night, as planned, some Red Cross workers feigning minor injuries rushed into a hospital in Tyre, and recounted a tale of horror: their ambulances had been attacked by Israeli missiles. The media was notified.

The next day, reporters from around the world interviewed the ambulance drivers as they lay in the hospital sporting prop bandages. The one driver who spoke the best English was quoted the most in the English-speaking press. The journalists, however, were not allowed to inspect the ambulances themselves; instead, the pre-packaged video was supplied to them, freezeframes from which were used as illustrations to accompany the articles. Three patients in the same hospital were identified as also being victims of the attack, even though their injuries had actually happened elsewhere. Every single Western reporter accepted the ambulance drivers’ story without question. Emboldened by the media’s credulity, the drivers exaggerated the severity of the incident with each new interview, until it no longer even vaguely matched the staged evidence. The story was broadcast to the world, and accepted as fact.

A few days later, after the Western press had wandered away to find other stories, the damaged ambulances were towed and parked in front of the Red Cross office in Tyre, as a martyrdom exhibit for the sympathetic local press and residents. Few if any mainstream journalists ever attempted to verify any of the claims made by the ambulance crews, despite the seriousness of the charge.
Could it be that the entire incident is a fabrication? All signs point to “Yes.”

If so, the implications are enormous, both for the outcome of the war and for the credibility of the media. Most analysts agree that Israel was pressured into a ceasefire due to international outcry over how it was conducting the battle. The media informed the public that Israel was intentionally targeting civilians; the public insisted that their governments demand that Israel stand down; international pressure was applied, and Israel caved in. And of all the incidents decried in the media — taking out infrastructure, destroying Hezbollah-associated buildings that had not been fully evacuated, and so on — only the ambulance incident could be held up as having no possible military purpose; all the other attacks were pointed out by Israel as being intended to degrade Hezbollah’s ability to fight. Aside from a handful of stray missiles and accidents or misunderstandings for which Israel apologized, only this incident was “proof” that Israel was purposely aiming at noncombatants. So reports that an Israeli missile attack destroyed two ambulances played a role in shaping global opinion, which led to a ceasefire leaving Hezbollah intact.

But if the entire incident turns out to have been an elaborate but clumsy hoax, where does that leave the reputation of the media? Not a single reporter or editor doubted the story for a second. Or if they did, they certainly didn’t inform readers of their doubts. Why did the media swallow the story hook, line and sinker? In their zeal to bash Israel, did they allow themselves, consciously or unconsciously, to be duped by Hezbollah supporters into broadcasting propaganda as news? Or is the media so eager to jump on any fresh scandal that they simply switch off their critical thinking and become absolutely credulous of any juicy tale thrown their way?

It took the blogs and non-professional independent researchers to shine the harsh light of forensic analysis on this case, in the process debunking just about every aspect of the allegations. And this was done merely with the meager scraps of evidence left over by the “professional” journalists, and by squeezing the maximum amount of information out of the subtlest of clues. But if the journalists who were right there on the scene had even the slightest interest in actually investigating the story, they had access to all sorts of information that could have blown the lid off the case. How hard would it have been to go back to the Red Cross office after a few days to inspect the ambulance carefully in person? To look at the hole in the roof, to photograph the rust up close, to search for burn marks or blood on the gurneys, to notice the driver’s healthy chin? Wouldn’t that have been a scandal worth reporting?

Is the media that gullible — or does it have a political bias? Either way, its credibility has now been lost.

(Posted: August 23, 2006.)


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The Red Cross Ambulance Incident – How the Media Legitimized an Anti-Israel Hoax and Changed the Course of a War

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